I think they may be draining the toilets,’ interjects Emily Blunt when the fitful juddering of her trailer becomes hard to ignore. ‘Glamorous, right?’ It’s an icebreaker, an assurance that despite her rise to the A-list she is still the straight-talking Brit, and a debunking of Hollywood – all in a single throwaway comment.
Sandwiched in between two vast grey sunbaked hangars at LA’s Universal Studios, the 33-year-old’s trailer is devoid of furniture, Portakabin-style Monet prints or the kind of luxury snack baskets hacks are inclined to pilfer from when the talent’s keeping them waiting. Indeed the only glamour in what could easily pass as a Slough fitted kitchen on wheels is Blunt herself, curled up on a banquette looking like a little corner of Austen-land in a black broderie anglaise Zimmermann jumpsuit and striped espadrilles.
‘I did have heels on but I had to take them off,’ winces the Devil Wears Prada star, and I can’t blame her. It’s junket day for her film The Huntsman: Winter’s War – the eagerly awaited Cedric Nicolas-Troyan-directed sequel to 2012’s Snow White & the Huntsman – and Blunt is four or five months pregnant. That’s a guestimate because when I ask how far along she is, Blunt mouths, ‘I won’t say.’ Just as she won’t say the sex of the child – her second with husband of nearly six years, actor and writer John Krasinski – ‘although we do know; I’m too nosy not to’.
What she will say and that makes her laugh in the shallow, breathy way that expectant women do, is that ‘with pregnancy, I’ve found that my stutter comes back a bit.’ Growing up in Roehampton, the daughter of a theatre actress turned English teacher and a criminal barrister (her older sister Felicity is a literary agent, married to the actor Stanley Tucci), Blunt spent most of her childhood trying to hide a disabling stammer.
It was only when she took part in her first school play aged 12 that she found herself able to get through whole sentences without a single hesitation. ‘Somehow, being somebody else and shedding my own abilities – or lack thereof – meant that it just went away,’ she explains. ‘And I’ve since found out that there are so many actors who stutter: Bruce Willis and James Earl Jones – even Samuel L Jackson, who is known for being this incredibly fast-talking character. But Samuel still has days, he told me, where the letters d and p are hard. And funnily enough, it’s been with both pregnancies that the stammer has come back a bit. Maybe everything gets tighter,’ she murmurs, ‘so there’s less room for your diaphragm? I don’t know, because I feel really relaxed.’
Blunt wasn’t a nervous or anxious child either. But her stutter – ‘a genetic thing that runs quite prominently in my father’s side of the family’ – made her a thinker, a watcher, and probably an actress, she tells me. ‘I enjoyed drinking in other people’s weird idiosyncrasies, and imitating people – because it was always easier to speak when I was doing it.’ Perhaps because she learned her craft from life rather than drama school, Blunt’s performances have been lauded for their subtlety and naturalism from the start.
Spotted by an agent at 17 in a play at the Edinburgh Festival (while still a pupil at the private sixth-form college, Hurtwood House) Blunt was cast alongside Judi Dench in The Royal Family, directed by Peter Hall, where she recalls Dame Judi introducing herself with the words, ‘Hello, darling. If anyone gives you any trouble in this, you come straight to me.’
But it wasn’t until her daring film debut three years later in Pawel Pawilowski’s coming-of-age drama My Summer of Love that Blunt harnessed an ability to imply vast untapped reserves of emotion doing and saying very little.
Anyone who needs reminding that the mouth can be infinitely more expressive than the eyes would do well to remember her performances in The Jane Austen Book Club, as a reserved French teacher; Charlie Wilson’s War, in which she played a congressman’s ‘raunchy’ daughter; The Adjustment Bureau, as Matt Damon’s hard-bodied ballerina love interest; Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a sheik’s mysterious attaché; and Jean-Marc Vallée’s The Young Victoria, which helped to establish Blunt as one of most respected British actresses in Hollywood.
Even her performance in a big-scale dystopian adventure like The Huntsman – in which she plays Freya, a grief-stricken ice queen with the deadly power to freeze her enemies – is beautifully nuanced, if not understated.
‘There have been many Frozen comments,’ she retorts with an Emily from The Devil Wears Prada- worthy eye-roll when I ask whether the studio contemplated billing it ‘Frozen for adults with sibling rivalry issues.’ (Freya and her sister, the evil Queen Ravenna – played by Charlize Theron – have a testy relationship, to put it mildly)
‘But that was always going to be the risk when you play someone with long white hair. And I suppose I might be called Elsa by girls in the street, who are wondering why Elsa has become so mean,’ she smiles.‘But I was really drawn to this strange, Mommy Dearest character, because I think very often you’re met with a villain in a film that you’re just supposed to accept for being this abhorrent person, whereas in Freya’s case you discover why she became who she is.’
With its impressive special-effects, stellar cast (‘Charlize and Chris [Hemsworth] are so shockingly beautiful that when they stood together it was like staring directly at the sun’), gorgeous costumes (‘one silver cape, made out of braided leather, weighed 80lbs and needed four people to put it on me’) and notable performances from both Blunt and Sheridan Smith as a libidinous, scene-stealing dwarf, The Huntsman seems likely to outdo its prequel, even without the scandal-driven audience numbers the first film brought in once it emerged that director Rupert Sanders had been having a liaison with his leading lady, Kristen Stewart, who played Snow White.
But doesn’t that declamatory acting style make it hard to keep a straight face? ‘Oh my God – so hard,’ Blunt chuckles. ‘When you’re wearing this crazy costume and trying to be evil, and someone falls over or burps on set it’s all the funnier, so we’ve got some good out-takes.
‘But despite the fantasy, you are trying to ground these people in some kind of a reality. Because we’re all aware we’re not making Remains of the Day here. Still, the whole thing was just really easy: lots of like-minded people who didn’t take it too seriously.’
She and Theron bonded instantly, both amused by their children’s reactions when they brought them on set (‘Initially I was worried about [two- year-old] Hazel seeing me in the white make-up and the wig,’ says Blunt, ‘but you realise that children just pick up on your essence and know that you’re still their mum, however you look’). But it was the South African Theron’s refusal to ‘suffer fools gladly’ that Blunt was most enamoured of. ‘Which is maybe why people think she’s tough. But I love that authenticity. It’s so rare to find someone who knows herself in such an unapologetic way.’
Days before we meet Theron gave an interview in which she declared – in her unapologetic way – that the lack of films with women in lead roles was as much down to audiences, who need to make the effort to ‘go see them’ as Hollywood. But based on this year’s Academy Awards, Blunt is optimistic. ‘Just look at how many female-driven films were recognised at the Oscars – and how hard it was to figure out who would be in that Best Actress category.
‘It was so thrilling to me that there have been that many brilliant roles for women – and women who are not necessarily in their 20s. Because these films that are just targeting 14-year-old boys… it’s insane! Which is why it’s so important to keep making films for girls and women – and to keep taking risks.’
Something Blunt, bored rigid with being offered ‘every single acerbic British bitch role on the planet’ after The Devil Wears Prada has tried to do. ‘Doing the same thing over and over again is not the joy of the job for me – so after Prada I turned them all down and went off and played an American pothead in Sunshine Cleaning instead.’
There’s an unflappability about Blunt that, contrary to her screen personae, never extends to froideur. Serene but not impervious, she remains quizzical, detached and diplomatic on most hot-button issues – although she will join me in a rant about how, despite the increasing number of men in her industry who have flagrantly had ‘work done’, it’s only ever the women who get derided for it.
‘I see it all the time and when you see it up close, it’s rough!’ Does it bother her in either sex as a viewer? ‘I get distracted by it,’ she says. ‘But I think some people do it well, and have obviously done a brilliant job of maintaining themselves. Still I don’t like it when these young girls do it. It just makes them look so much older, which makes me sad.’
Any real vehemence, however, is reserved for the issue of the gender pay gap. ‘I do feel it’s a question of responsibility now,’ she says. ‘If you’re in a position where you’re given a big opportunity – as a woman and as an actress – you need to be asking, “What would a man in this industry be earning at the precise same point in his career?” My agent can find out for me very quickly, so that’s something I always ask now and I think it’s every woman’s responsibility to do the same. Then hopefully a woman working in a supermarket can say to themselves, “I’m going to find out what Bob’s getting – because I want the same as Bob.”’
Agreed. But of course women will need to get over their natural disinclination to ask for a raise in the first place. ‘True,’ she nods. ‘And something Jennifer Lawrence said really struck me, because I’ve done the same thing. She said that when American Hustle came around she knew that the guys were being paid more than her but “didn’t want to make a fuss” and “be that person”.
‘Whenever women are trying to do deals, they’re so often seen as aggressive, bitchy or diva-like, when no man putting up a good fight and asking to be paid his worth is ever described as “diva-ish” – and that’s unfair. Likewise, “ambitious” is applauded in men but seen as something rather clawing and selfish in women. So look: you reach a point in your career where you realise you can’t be liked by everybody.’
Blunt probably gets as close as any celebrity to risking public opprobrium. During her three-year relationship with Michael Bublé – which ended in 2008 – it’s possible her mere existence enraged the Canadian crooner’s fans. And shortly after she became an American citizen last year (‘mainly for tax reasons’), a comment made during one of the Republican presidential candidate debates (‘This was a terrible mistake. What have I done?’) might have provoked the humourless hordes on message boards, but for someone as talented, beautiful and apparently happy as Blunt, she’s remarkably free of detractors.
Maybe because despite a host of famous friends (she and Krasinski married at George Clooney’s Lake Como retreat and are close to Matt Damon, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Aniston and her husband Justin Theroux), Blunt has always aspired to be as private as her mentor, Meryl Streep, and as discreet as her professional blueprint, Cate Blanchett. Which ‘is getting harder’, she admits.
It went from people in the street saying, “You look like the girl in The Devil Wears Prada,” to “You look like Emily Blunt.” And now it’s “You’re Emily Blunt!”’ Marrying Krasinski – the Martin Freeman equivalent in the US version of The Office – hasn’t helped. ‘Because in a way you do create a monster when you go out with someone well known,’ she concedes. ‘Still, I couldn’t help who I fell in love with.’
But whereas she can still ‘blend in and take the subway’ in New York, where she and Krasinski have just relocated from LA, it’s harder for her husband, she maintains, ‘because he’s so tall, so he really draws the eye’.
Although Blunt does admit to the odd bout of self-Googling (‘sometimes it’s nice and sometimes it’s horrifying and then I won’t do it for a very long time’), age and motherhood usually prompt her to ask herself ‘who cares?’ these days. ‘And most of the time,’ she laughs, ‘not me. Because I feel so completely fulfilled. I’m in love with this job so I come home enlivened and emboldened by the work I’ve just done.
‘And although life is a juggle and I have to spend a few days away from Hazel here and there, when I’m not working I’m with her all the time. I do think it will get harder to leave her as she gets older, but a friend once gave me a good piece of advice. Instead of saying, “Mummy has to go,” say, “Mummy has to go, but I love what I do. I just love it!”’
Hazel will love what her mother does too when she finds out – as is revealed the day after our interview – that Mummy is to star in Rob Marshall’s remake of Mary Poppins, not to mention Jayson Thiessen’s My Little Pony: The Movie and the sequel to the hilarious 2011 animated hit, Gnomeo & Juliet.
Blunt’s forthcoming role as Rachel in the film of Paula Hawkins’ thriller The Girl on the Train may not be very child-friendly, but is motherhood making her turn down roles she would once have accepted? ‘I think so,’ she muses.
‘Too racy would be one thing I wouldn’t go for now. I’m not so keen on doing nudity, because I’m not 22 any more. And actually it’s not so much a moral thing as “I’ve done it before and do I really want to do it again?” Does it serve the film or is it gratuitous and seeing someone’s tits for the sake of it? Because I don’t think it’s necessary most of the time. Also playing violent or racist characters would be hard for me now.’
Given the range she has demonstrated so far – a range that increasingly threatens to bury the ‘acerbic British bitch’ deep in her back catalogue – Blunt will have what every actor craves: the luxury of choice. Does she ever still feel – as she said in an interview nearly a decade ago – that ‘like most actors, I wake up in the morning and feel I’m a fraud’?
‘That was a long time ago,’ she flings back, genuinely surprised, it seems, at the thoughts of her younger self. ‘I don’t think I know everything and, of course, I’ve got more to learn… But no. I don’t feel that any more.’